Six years ago, when then-Mayor Pat Burt delivered his first 'State of the City' address, he read from prepared remarks about a weak economy and a city government that was cutting budgets, reducing staff and asking for pay and benefit concessions, and he focused on the importance of tending to the city's infrastructure needs.
Wednesday night, a more relaxed and upbeat Burt, clearly enjoying the limelight, spoke only from notes and included photos, videos and even a rap song for an appreciative audience at the new Mitchell Park Community Center, an example of an infrastructure achievement he had expressed hope for in 2010.
Speaking for almost an hour, Burt's remarks rivaled the famously long State of the Union speeches made by former President Bill Clinton, with fewer applause lines.
But his audience of current and past elected officials, city staff and other community leaders gave his less formal and sometimes humorous style and the substance of his remarks a warm reception. Unlike six years earlier, and now facing the end of his council service due to term limits, Burt seemed to relish the chance to hold the stage and share his views with a captive audience, perhaps for the last time.
There were no major new policy initiatives or proposals, but Burt made clear that the resurgence of the economy and ensuing development have come at a big price, in the form of transportation and parking problems, skyrocketing housing prices, uninspired commercial development and threats to small retail businesses.
He attempted to strike a balance, as he does on the council, between controlling or limiting the impacts of development with a desire to see the community adapt to the differing needs and desires of younger people seeking lifestyles that are at odds with many longtime (and aging) residents. He tried to reassure the community that many steps are underway to respond to the worsening traffic congestion, including the temporary cap on development that will remain in effect until a new Comprehensive Plan is adopted.
As mayor, Burt's only power beyond his individual vote comes from his influence over council agendas, management of council meetings and using the visibility of his position to build consensus on controversial issues through persuasion.
His speech clearly signaled his interest in finding ways to get both residents and commuters out of their cars in order to sufficiently ease congestion and allow for the construction of more housing. Ideally, he said, new housing should focus on denser, small-sized units downtown and around California Avenue that would attract millennials who drive less (or not at all) and who won't crowd our schools with new students.
In what was probably his most controversial statement, Burt argued that Palo Alto can plan for population and housing growth and actually reduce the number of car trips and congestion. He challenged the current Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee to present a plan that will accomplish that.
Surprisingly absent from Burt's long speech were several important issues that have consumed time and energy by the council and community and on which he has shown plenty of past concern.
While he heralded the diversity in the community, calling Palo Alto "one of the few places in the world with so much diversity," it was in the context of how Silicon Valley had become a magnet for innovators and entrepreneurs. He made no mention of economic diversity, the plight of the families living at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and other low-income residents, or of the challenges of the un-housed.
Also absent was any discussion of the stresses and challenges facing adolescents in the community, a topic that has attracted national attention in the wake of a series of teen suicides and that most parents would place at the top of their list of worries. Similarly, he made no mention of the future of the Cubberley Community Center site or of the needs of a growing senior population.
Perhaps most noticeably absent from his speech was an acknowledgment of the fissures within the community over the problems resulting from development. Beyond the policy work that Burt believes can correct for these impacts, Palo Alto is deeply divided about what kind of community it wants to be in the future, and this will almost certainly lead to a hard-fought council election this fall.
As mayor and a swing vote on issues that split the so-called residentialist-establishment alliances on the council, Burt is in a unique position seek out the middle ground and quell the fomenting political polarization.